Category Archives: washington post

Three Keys to School Board Races

By Adam Pagnucco.

Make no mistake: running for school board is TOUGH.  The MoCo school board has two at-large seats, five district seats and one seat elected by MCPS students.  Of the seven non-student seats, all of them – at-large and district – are subject to voting by the entire county electorate.  Three seats – one of the at-large seats plus Districts 2 and 4 – hold elections in presidential years, which attract tons more voters than gubernatorial years when elections for other state and county offices are held.  Since the school board seats are non-partisan, both primaries and generals can be real competitions.  Finally, Republicans, unaffiliated and third party voters can vote in school board primaries as well as generals.  So school board candidates have to communicate with waaaaaay more voters than county-level and state legislative candidates and they have a lot less money to do that.

Dear readers, think about all of the above before you decide to run for school board!

And so these races are distinguished by little money, large electorates and woefully inadequate press attention.  That’s why three factors are almost always key to deciding them.  They are:

1.  Incumbency.  This is an important advantage in most elections.  Incumbents have opportunities to learn the issues, assemble records, build relationships and accumulate name recognition.  School board races are no exception.

2.  The Apple Ballot.  The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has long had the most advanced political program of any group that participates in MoCo elections.  Its centerpiece is the mighty Apple Ballot, an apple-shaped endorsement flyer that is widely distributed at election time.  Few if any groups care more about school board elections than MCEA since board members set policy, hire the superintendent and approve collective bargaining agreements.

A version of the Apple Ballot from 2006.  Note the placement of school board candidates at the top.

3.  The Washington Post endorsement.  The Post regularly endorses in school board races and the newspaper has a reach that extends beyond traditional Democratic voting constituencies.  The Post is also occasionally critical of MCEA although it sometimes supports the same candidates as the teachers.

Without the benefit of significant resources to communicate with vast numbers of voters, school board candidates with one or more of the above advantages are heavily dependent on them to differentiate themselves from the pack.  That’s why while all of the above advantages matter in any race, they may be especially critical to candidates for school board.

The table below shows candidates in contested school board races from 2006 through 2018 and the distribution of incumbency, the Apple Ballot and the Post endorsement.  In some cases, the primary was uncontested because there were two or fewer candidates while the general was contested.

A casual glance demonstrates the value of incumbency, the Apple and the Post endorsement but let’s be more explicit.  The table below shows win rates for all three, as well as combinations of some or all of them.

In every tabulation, candidates holding at least one of the above three advantages win at least 75% of the time.  Holders of more than one advantage often win more than 90% of the time.  Candidates holding both the Apple and the Post, whether or not they are incumbents, are nearly a lock.  The one recent exception was in 2016, when at-large incumbent Phil Kauffman had both the Apple and the Post and was still defeated by former Paint Branch High School Principal Jeanette Dixon.  In that race, Kauffman earned the Apple Ballot after the primary and the Post did not endorse him until October, possibly weakening the value of those endorsements.

These three factors don’t explain everything, but they explain a lot.  While it’s possible to win without any of these advantages, as Dixon demonstrated, it’s very difficult.  Keep an eye on these keys as this year’s school board races move forward.

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Post Editorial Board Goes After Elrich… Again

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post has published an editorial branding Council Member Marc Elrich, who is currently leading in the Democratic primary for Executive, as “an outlier who proudly positioned himself on the ideological extreme left” and “the most insistently anti-business and anti-development member of the Montgomery County Council for more than a decade.”  Those who are interested in the Post’s opinion can read it here.

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The Washington Post Ballots

By Adam Pagnucco.

Two ballots were handed out today announcing county-level endorsements by the Washington Post.

The first one shows all of the Post’s endorsements for County Executive, County Council and Board of Education.  It has an authority line from David Blair’s campaign.  We hear that several other Post-endorsed campaigns distributed it in addition to Blair’s people.  The presence of an authority line makes it legal and the fact that it included all the county Post endorsements, not just some, is fair.

The second one shows just four of the Post’s endorsements: County Executive (Blair), Council At-Large (Evan Glass and Marilyn Balcombe) and Council District 1 (Andrew Friedson).  The other two Council At-Large Post endorsees (incumbent Hans Riemer and Gabe Albornoz) do not appear.  It has no visible authority line.  This particular one was distributed in Bethesda but we have no idea how many were handed out.  If it indeed lacks an authority line, this ballot violated state election law.  It was also misleading because it only partially lists the Council At-Large endorsements.  No campaign has admitted responsibility for this flyer.

We have not seen a “Washington Post Ballot” in the past.  But if it continues, and if campaigns can agree on funding it, it could conceivably be turned into an alternative to the Apple Ballot.

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Is This the Most Expensive Facebook Ad in MoCo Politics?

By Adam Pagnucco.

County Executive candidate David Blair wants you to know that the Washington Post has endorsed him.  Wait, that doesn’t do it justice.  He really, REALLY wants you to know that.  Why do we say so?  Because he may have purchased the most expensive Facebook ad in the history of MoCo politics to publicize it.

Most Facebook ads from state and local candidates cost less than a hundred bucks and run for a few days.  The more you pay, the bigger the audience, but there is considerable variability in exposure and targeting.  Still, a $50 ad on something good is a cheap way to get your name out there.  If every exposure costs two cents (a VERY rough guesstimate with a lot of spread), that fifty bucks could get you on 2,500 feeds and draw a few dozen interactions.

The exact stats on ad cost and engagements are available only to the advertisers.  But Facebook has a political ad tracker that reports stats in ballpark ranges.  Here’s a report of an ad that Council Member George Leventhal is running on his hilarious Avengers-themed campaign video.  He spent up to $100 on the ad and it showed up on 5,000-10,000 feeds.  (The actual people count will be less because some will have seen it more than once.)  This is a very typical ad in MoCo politics.

Now here is the ad Blair is running on his Post endorsement.  The report indicates that he spent between $10,000 and $50,000 and it showed up on more than a million feeds.

By the standards of MoCo politics, that’s unheard of.  Even David Trone rarely spends more than $1,000 on his Facebook ads.  We know of one ad – on men’s mental health – on which Trone spent between $1,000 and $5,000, receiving between 10,000 and 50,000 impressions.

So if you live in MoCo and have a Facebook account, we bet you know that David Blair has been endorsed by the Washington Post.  And if you didn’t, well… you need to log in!

Disclosure: Your author supports Roger Berliner and spends way too much time on Facebook.

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Washington Post Endorses for MoCo Council, School Board

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post has endorsed the following candidates for County Council and Board of Education.

Council At-Large: Gabe Albornoz, Marilyn Balcombe, Evan Glass, Hans Riemer

Council District 1: Andrew Friedson

Council District 2: Craig Rice

Council District 3: Sidney Katz

Council District 4: Nancy Navarro

Council District 5: Tom Hucker

Board of Education At-Large: Julie Reiley

Board of Education District 3: Pat O’Neill

Read their endorsements here.

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What the Post’s Endorsement of Blair Means

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post’s endorsement of businessman David Blair hit like a grenade this past weekend, blowing up the County Executive race.  What does it mean?

First, in reading the language of the Post’s endorsement, we are struck by how closely their views on the challenges facing the county resemble our own.  The majority of these opening three paragraphs mirror what we have been writing about the county economy for years.

These seem like boom times in Montgomery County, the mainly rich suburb that has absorbed roughly 100,000 new residents since 2010 to a population now approaching 1.1 million. Amazon (whose CEO, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post) has shortlisted the county for its second corporate headquarters; construction cranes tower over Bethesda and Silver Spring; and the public school system, one of the nation’s largest, includes some of the best high schools anywhere.

That’s why it’s easy to overlook some ominous signs of fiscal and economic trouble ahead. A burgeoning population of retirees, immigrants and other less affluent residents has strained local resources and budgets. Those moving into the county tend to be poorer than those leaving. The chasm between economically prosperous pockets (such as the ones dominated by cranes) and stagnant ones is widening. Most worrying, business and job growth are anemic.

That’s the unsettling backdrop for the June 26 Democratic primary, which is likely to determine who will run the county for the next four years. County Executive Isiah Leggett, a deft and capable manager, is retiring after 12 years in the job (and no Republican has won an election in Montgomery since 2002). The central question is which of the candidates for county executive is most capable of juicing a sluggish commercial environment — the only way to broaden the local tax base so it can sustain the county’s excellent schools and progressive services.

The Post framed the election’s central question correctly.  And their policy view, clearly established in the language above, will no doubt influence their choices for County Council.  That said, they do not share your author’s view that governing experience is useful for addressing these challenges.  So be it.

The Post has a pretty good record in top-tier MoCo Democratic primaries.  They endorsed Chris Van Hollen (CD-8) in 2002, Ike Leggett (County Executive) in 2006 and 2014 and John Delaney (CD-6) in 2012.  They also endorsed Kathleen Matthews (CD-8) in 2016, who finished third.

Even so, the Post is not a king-maker; one of the good things about MoCo politics is that we have no king-makers here.  But their endorsement matters, especially when five candidates are vying to be the chief rival for Marc Elrich.  Consider what Roger Berliner (your author’s choice), Bill Frick or Rose Krasnow would have said if they had gotten the Post endorsement.  If Berliner had received it, he would have told non-Elrich voters, “I am the one who combines the Sierra Club, moderates, District 1 voters and now the Post.  I’m the alternative to Elrich.”  Frick would have said something similar while substituting realtors for the Sierra Club.  If Krasnow had received it, she would have said, “I am the only woman in a primary in which sixty percent of voters will be women and now I have the Post.  I’m the alternative to Elrich.”  None of these things can be said now.  All three lose the opportunity to leverage the Post endorsement to expand outside their geographic bases.

It is sometimes said that Elrich has a ceiling.  Some voters will find a decades-long socialist who equates transit-oriented development with ethnic cleansing and favors rent control unappealing.  But Blair has a ceiling too.  That was expressed by a commenter on Seventh State’s Facebook page who wrote, “I don’t want a businessman political newcomer who is trying to buy the election.”  Fair or not, that is a common sentiment among Democratic activists, and those who feel this way are not persuadable on this point.  Blair can send them thirty mailers and they won’t budge.  How many rank-and-file voters have this view?  David Trone, who shares this handicap, received 22% of MoCo’s vote in the 2016 Congressional District 8 race.  That’s an imperfect analogy because CD8 omits some relatively moderate areas in MoCo’s Upcounty and Trone was not talking about the unpopular nine percent property tax hike in his campaign.  Still, Blair will need more than 22% to win.

Besides Blair, the other big winner from the Post’s endorsement is Elrich.  Elrich has been crusading against rival candidates who have been supported by wealthy businessmen for years; now he gets an ACTUAL wealthy businessman as perhaps his chief opponent.  Elrich is no doubt rubbing his hands together in glee as his progressive hordes gird for battle against plutocracy.  His field coordinator must be dizzy with joy.

Both the Elrich and Blair campaigns need to consider the following question.  Which group is larger in the Democratic primary electorate: the people who believe that taxes have gone up but their service quality has not or the people in Elrich’s base?  If the former outnumber the latter – not an impossible prospect considering that a majority of Democrats voted for term limits two years ago – then maybe an outsider has a shot.  It would be totally unprecedented given that every prior MoCo Executive has had governing experience before assuming office.  But Robin Ficker winning a charter amendment vote by forty points was also unprecedented.

Thanks to the Post, a wild election has gotten a little wilder.  There are only forty-three days to go before this story reaches its momentous conclusion!

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Washington Post Endorsements Should be Coming Out Soon

By Adam Pagnucco.

Most influential endorsements have been made in our state and local races but one big one still has to drop: the Washington Post.  In contested races for Executive and County Council over the last three cycles, the Post has gone 18-7 – a 72% win rate.  Its misses included Howie Denis (Council D1, 2006), Mike Subin and Bo Newsome (Council At-Large, 2006), Royce Hanson (Council District 2, 2010), Duchy Trachtenberg (Council At-Large, 2010), Tom Moore (Council District 3, 2014) and Evan Glass (Council District 5, 2014).  Other than maybe Newsome, all of these were credible candidates and three (Denis, Subin and Trachtenberg) were incumbents.  In 2014, the first mid-term year in which Maryland had a June primary, the Post endorsed for Executive on May 2, for County Council on May 26 and for General Assembly on May 30.  Candidates are eager for the Post to endorse sooner rather than later because they would like to add the endorsement to their yard signs, mail and walk lit.

We know that the Post has been interviewing Executive and County Council candidates.  We would not be surprised if their endorsement for Executive comes out in a matter of days.

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The Post Should Hire Andrew Metcalf Right Now

By Adam Pagnucco.

MoCo’s most feared man, former Washington Post reporter Bill Turque, has left to terrorize hapless local politicians in Kansas City.  In a rare moment of self-reflection, the newspaper’s bosses have come to realize that “our digital and print readers crave local news” and have posted an ad seeking a Turque successor.  (Let’s remember that this is the same company that killed the Gazette!)  We are sure they will get many qualified applicants, but there’s one name that’s a total no-brainer:

Bethesda Magazine reporter Andrew Metcalf.

Metcalf is a Young Turque.  Just like his older counterpart, Metcalf has been ripping off political band-aids since he arrived here three years ago.  He has covered nearly everything in the county, including budgets, taxes, term limits, legislation, last year’s Congressional election, the Purple Line and much, much more.  His coverage of the liquor monopoly has been second to none, especially his exposure of Delegate Ben Kramer’s conflict of interest as a county liquor store landlord.  He obtained video of Governor Larry Hogan accusing a judge who had ruled against the Purple Line of living at a nearby country club (an inaccurate statement).  He was the first mainstream news reporter to break the news that John Delaney was running for President.  Finally, Metcalf is the author of one of our favorite local stories of all time: “Supposed Nigerian Prince, Robert Lipman Imposter File Public Information Requests with County.”  African monarchs everywhere are writing him into their wills!

Perhaps even more important than his body of work is this fact: Metcalf knows us.  He knows our elected officials, their staffers, the activists, the players and lots of people involved with our political culture.  He knows the structure of the government at both the state and county levels.  He knows our issues: schools, transportation, crime, taxes, jobs, inequality, immigration, cultural diversity and so many others.  He has a deep source network.  And he is developing that combination of respect, trust and wariness that local reporters have with political establishments.  Politicians know they need to be ready when Metcalf calls!

All of these things take time for reporters to develop.  The problem is that we don’t have a lot of time in this county.  One of the most historic elections in our county’s history is approaching in less than a year – and that’s the amount of time it takes most decent reporters to get established.  If the Post hires a brand new person who knows nothing about our county, by the time that person figures out where the bathrooms are, the election will be over.  The obvious solution is to hire a good reporter who already has years of experience covering us and that’s Metcalf.

We understand that Bethesda Magazine publisher Steve Hull is preparing to fire mortar shells at our beloved Limerick Pub in retaliation for this post.  We can’t blame him!  But for the good of the community, the good of local journalism and the good of its own bottom line, the Washington Post needs to hire Andrew Metcalf.  Right.  Frickin.  Now.

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